Hurling, with all its speed, fury, and even a healthy dollop of donnybrook, returned Sunday to Fenway Park for the first time since 1954 in an exhibition match between Galway and Dublin.
Not that the score truly mattered to most everyone in the crowd of 27,776, but Galway won it, 50-47, with a madcap flurry of late goals that erased the 36-31 lead Dublin carried into the fourth quarter. Jason Flynn (18 points) led the Galway barrage, while Fiontan McGibb (10 points) led the Dubliners.
On a raw (low 40s) and oft-drizzly afternoon in the Fenway, Ireland’s ancient stick-and-ball sport came alive as if it were born to Fenway Park’s emerald pitch. There really isn’t a US-based sport for one-on-one comparison, but hurling includes elements a North American would identify in lacrosse, ice hockey, baseball, soccer, and basketball. By a Yank’s eye, it’s a mongrel, one with a greyhound’s speed and a pit bull’s bite.
The Irish like to say hurling is the world’s fastest sport on turf, and it would be futile to argue the point based on what went on inside the lyric little bandbox of a hurley pitch, one that the day before played stage to the Notre Dame-Boston College football game. Once the baseball-like sliotar was thrown in, the running never stopped. The ball was constantly in play. The clock was halted only rarely by the referee. And the scoring, with goals varying in value of 3, 4, and 5 points, gushed at a rate near equal that of the hot chocolate that streamed from John Henry’s silver urns.
Sam Kennedy, president of the Red Sox, labeled the day a “spectacular event’’ with passion and intensity that were “off the charts.’’
“We need to do it again,’’ said an effusive Kennedy, “and soon!’’
Aside from the goal scoring and some spectacular (make that, s-p-e-c-t-a-c-u-l-a-r) goalkeeping, the other main highlight was a nasty, at times vicious, melee that broke out midway through the second quarter after Dublin keeper Conor Dooley hit the ground with a knee injury. For the next two minutes, the 21 other players, virtually all with their hurleys in hand, mixed it up in a scene straight out of the NHL, circa early-’70s. (Google: “Broad Street Bullies, fights’’).
For those in the stands who’ve missed seeing the Bruins in such donnybrooks, it was a throwback Original Six moment that most likely fully justified the admission price. Forbes Kennedy, come on down.
“At the end of the day,’’ said Dublin’s Johnny McCaffrey, reflecting on the mayhem, “you’re not going to give an inch.’’
“If I’d got the ball in the net,’’ added Galway midfielder Aidan Harte, disappointed he’d failed to put a shot by the fallen Dooley, “none of it probably would have happened in the first place. But it happens. It shows . . . two teams trying to win.’’
It would be impossible to overstate the athleticism and skill of the goalkeepers. To guard the soccer-sized nets, fending off shots upward of 100 miles per hour, the keepers are outfitted identical to the rest of the lot, save for their sticks (hurleys), which have heads (bas) only slightly larger than standard. All the goalies, five of whom saw action, made stops that rated somewhere between impossible and something out of the Pixar animation lab. Take the three best goalie saves across the NHL on any given night, none would compare with those which Galway’s Colm Callanan and James Skehill and Dublin’s Dooley, Gary Maguire, and Alan Nolan fashioned across the 60 minutes.
The game itself was a hybrid version of the real McCoy, in large part because Fenway’s intimate size allowed for a playing field only 100 yards long (the ND-BC gridiron that ran from third base to right field). Traditional hurling pitches stretch some 450 feet or more. Rather than 15 players aside, the hybrid version called for only 11 players. The standard game also incorporates extended goal posts over the soccer-sized net, tempting long shots (150 feet or more) that tally at a point apiece if they split the uprights. The hybrid game, termed “Elevens,’’ was played with only the net, putting the scoring focus solely on goals.
“Absolutely brilliant,’’ said Malachy Hanley, the Galway coach, when asked what he thought of the downsized version of his beloved sport. “It moves so fast, you always have to think, think, think.’’
The crowd, roughly double the size Sox officials initially expected, grew more excited as the day played out, a likely indication they were picking up the rules and nuances (not that donnybrooks have nuances). The ambiance was fun and festive, the crowd decked out in Bruins, Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics garb. The Celts, with a leprechaun their logo, appeared to be least represented in that department.
“The way the crowd erupted, it reminded me of Croke Park on a Sunday,’’ said Harte, referring to Ireland’s sacred hurling stadium, which opened in 1884 and has a crowd capacity of more than 82,000. “It’s a memory I will always cherish.’’
“We’d heard all the stories about Fenway Park,’’ said an equally impressed Maguire, “going back to Babe Ruth and the whole shebang.’’
The Bambino was still wearing Red Sox flannels when hurling was first played at Fenway in 1916, back in a time when the ballpark was commonly used for events other than baseball. Under Henry’s ownership, Fenway has come alive again with myriad events, great, small, and in between.
Hurling now has taken three bows in what was once Harry Frazee’s quaint little home in the Fens, with interludes of 38 and 61 years between throw-ins. Based on Sam Kennedy’s enthusiasm, it’s likely to be back much sooner next time. Not all shebangs are meant to end the same.